Are irrational voters stubborn voters?

Bryan Caplan writes:

Venezuelan policy was bad in the past for the same reason it’s really bad now: In Venezuela, bad policy is good politics because it’s popular.

We all know that Bryan blames bad policy on irrational voters,  I sometimes worry he is too quickly identifying irrationality with stubbornness.  An irrational voter might be very easy manipulated by a politician, just as many Venezuelan voters have had their incipient populism mobilized by the rhetoric of Chavez.  Were so many Cubans communist before Castro?  Of course to the extent irrationality and its content are endogenous, we must move away from a simple "blame the voters" story.

In the past Bryan has blogged that many voters are too stupid or too irrational to respond even to propaganda.  But political rhetoric sometimes works on some of the people and perhaps that is enough.  (Technical point: I doubt if the Caplan-postulated irrationality is evenly distributed along a Downsian spectrum in such a way to support quasi-dictatorial rule by the median voter.)  Irrationality is likely to make the political spectrum sufficiently complex and multi-dimensional as to have some easily manipulated levers.  In that case electoral competition is not aiming at a simple mid-point of dominant public opinion.  Social choice theory then tells us that even a small amount of preference manipulation or agenda-setting can have a huge effect on final outcomes.

Under one plausible view (not Bryan’s as far as I know), politicians have good fundraising and coalition-organizing reasons to persuade voters to accept an essentially one-dimensional political scale.  Mankind’s biological tendencies toward prejudicial alliances, combined with the forces of spontaneous order, support the same.  Political irrationality results, much as Caplan suggests, but the apparently-in-charge voters are as much a shadow play as a unique cause or fulcrum. 

Tristan Tzara!

Addendum: Here is the critical Christopher Hayes review of Bryan’s book.


Comments for this post are closed